I watch the polite clerk gently lay the identical Lladro statues in separate, rectangular wood crates lined with form-fitting straw.
“Para mi madre,” [For my mother], I say, pointing to one, feeling like I need to explain, and wanting to practice my Spanish.
Her eyes meet mine and she smiles and nods.
“Y la otra?” [And the other one], she asks, as she seals them both with Lladro blue tape for shipment to the US.
“Para mi,” [For me]. And we both smile.
At 16, I am on my first trip abroad for an immersion program in Spanish literature, language, and culture. Everything here awes me. Manhole covers and fire hydrants in Madrid, where we stay and study, are magical because, well, they are in Spain. Franco has just been buried; it is an exciting time.
I feel such an affinity for the language and the people that I begin to suspect that I’d been a Madrilena in another life. I want badly to share my love of the culture and show appreciation to my parents by finding the perfect souvenirs for them.
My father’s extensive collection of canes from all over the world made it easy to find something for him. I bought two old canes, one in El Rastro, Madrid’s flea market. The other, topped with a man’s carved, hatted head, came from Seville. Gone now almost 15 years, I have inherited his collection and continue to add to it.
But finding something unique and special for my mom proves more challenging. I scour the shops around the Puerta del Sol and Plaza Mayor and pore over piece after piece of fine, uniquely Spanish Lladro porcelain. Its delicate, languid figurines in muted blues, browns, and greys evoked the subjects of the El Greco paintings that I’d seen in the Prado. Coveted in America, but ubiquitous in Spain, tourists had to be careful not to succumb to vendors hawking knock-offs. A distinctive royal blue stamp on the unglazed base indicates authenticity.
I settled on an exquisite, slender young woman – her long, soft brown hair tied back loosely at the nape of her neck – in a white-aproned, long blue skirt, cradling a small lamb in her arms. She gazes down at the lamb, and he up at her, like a mother and child. Her subtle form belies the strength of her love. It so well represents this place, and I would later realize, our mutual love, that I buy not only one for her, but one for myself as well.
Almost 40 years later to the day, she lays dying in the hospital. “I wish you could sell your house and settle in and start a new chapter in your life.” “I like my life,” I said, defensively, but I know she only wants my happiness, as she had fervently for her enduring tenure as mom. She acquitted her duties impeccably; my sister Suzanne and I are pretty well adjusted adult women, both with two children – she, girls, and I, boys. Mom shone as “Grandma Barbara,” and “raised” scores of other toddlers as a preschool teacher. She travelled the world, and had many good friends.
“I have had a good life. I’m ready,” she has told us over and over. She has covered every detail she and we can think of, managing her demise quite actively from her hospital bed. Suzanne and I nod and scribble as she tells us everything we need to know to neatly wrap up her existence. Except me. I’m the only loose end that she can’t seem to tie up, and I can see that she laments it.
“My girls,” she smiles faintly as she grips our hands tightly, her eyes wide, but fixed not on us, but on something or someone just past us. It’s the last thing we will hear her say as we tell her we love her and that it’s ok for her to go. She touches her lips repeatedly.
“What do you think she means?” Suzanne asks. “Is she thirsty?” She gently places ice chips in her mouth.
“No,” I say. “She’s blowing us kisses goodbye.”
When Suzanne and I complete the cathartic cleaning out of her apartment, I carefully wrap my mother’s Lladro statue and take her home to her twin.
I wish, I think, as I unpack my things in my new apartment, that my mom could see. “No dates yet, but one thing at a time,” I say, smiling up at the ceiling. I’m having this conversation with her; half convinced that she can hear me, as I am struggling to close a window I’d opened in hopes of welcoming even a breath of fresh air into the stuffy-overstuffed apartment. I am awkwardly stretched over a large, square, marble-topped side table strewn haphazardly with “tchotchkes.”
The window gives suddenly as I strain, and it slams down, as do I, with its force. My elbow, with a precision I couldn’t have mustered if I’d tried, strikes the pair of Lladro shepherdesses perfectly, like a bowling ball aimed at two lone standing pins: Spare! They fall backwards as I watch in horrified paralysis, and shatter on the marble, both of their heads rolling to the floor.
I’m stunned for a moment. That can’t be, I think. Surely I can go back and stop that from happening.
Yet, strangely, I don’t shatter. I am oddly calm and circumspect as I gingerly clean up the carnage. It’s a break with the past, I think. The new start my mother wished for me. I feel the unmistakable weight of a hand on my shoulder. I dare not look up, or behind me, but just stare intently into the loving eyes of both girls now gazing up at me. I hear the words that she said to me over and over, over the years. “It’s just stuff, my honey.”